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29
Sep 04

FT TOP 100 FILMS 23: GREMLINS 2

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FT TOP 100 FILMS
23: GREMLINS 2

Of the sequels in this list, this one perhaps might raise the biggest eyebrow. Its predecessor is by no means a great movie, it might have its fans but was too kiddie to be scary, and too scary for the kids. Oh and its central plot device (feed ’em after midnight and they turn into monsters) was destroyed by any vaguely pedantic twelve year old who understood the concept of time-zones. So every kid in America then.

So why Gremlins 2? Unlike nearly all the other sequels, nearly all sequels indeed, Gremlins 2 is a completely different genre to the first in its sequence. Gremlins 2 is an out and out comedy. Taking the piss out of itself, the world and in particular the movie biz that even thought that a Gremlins 2 was necessary. A film that embraces the stupidity at the core of the concept, a film that realises that the kids in the first film were actuallya bit insipid, and that Gizmo was pretty much a cheap toy rather than any kind of character. This is a sketch comedy of a film, a parodic slapstick whirlwind of colour and toytown macabre. It plays fast and loose with the audience in much the way Mars Attacks! would do later, but with a few key exceptions. Joe Dante has a much better sense of humour than Tim Burton, and funny was not necessarily on teh cards when you went in.

I am not sure even why I went to see it. But I do remember thinking I was going to get a cheap rehash of the original, just set in the city. Maybe it was raining (plot hole number two if you reproduce by getting WET!) Anyway I remember slowly, and then quite quickly, realising that this film was going to be silly. I think it was the time Grandpa from The Munsters turned up. Yes the film relies far too much on Joe Dante’s obsessions with cheap horror films, but for the sight gags (Gizmo as Rambo is both adorable and extremely daft), the destruction and slapstick – there had not been a better film of this sort since Laurel and Hardy hung up their boots.

Of course it would have been better if the insipid couple from the first film dies, but you can’t have everything…

Jelly telly

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Jelly telly
Answers, if you will, to Three’s latest ad campaign.

You know the one: Japanese urban cowboys find huge jellyfish in scrubland, take it back to the city, give it a drink, do a little bodypopping. Tag line: “We like sharing”.

I assume I’m not alone in asking, “Huh?”.

Maybe it’s one of the most bizarre set-up teasers in advertising history, and it will all become clear in a horrifying piece of commercial cynicism in a week or two.

But I hope not.

As a stand-alone commercial it’s quite inspired. Completely incomprehensible and irrelevant, yet utterly memorable.

I might even forgive them for letting Anna Friel go.

28
Sep 04

ANTHEMS

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ANTHEMS (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from The Brown Wedge

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Dir. Lewis Milestone

The first version of this story I saw — though I barely remember anything about it, I was only eight at the time and didn’t have a full grasp of the historical setting — was this 1979 TV version. Then there’s the original book, a fine text indeed and one which the TV movie follows more closely, I seem to remember (both book and 1979 movie start in medias res, for instance). But then there’s the 1930 movie version, spectacularly popular, winner of the Oscar for that year, and source for a series of parodies in the years thereafter (clearly the winner has to be the astoundingly wrong So Quiet on the Canine Front). And so with my head full of reading Tommy, I decided the other night to take a break and revisit the film, which I own on DVD.

The first time I saw it, it was screened as an adjunct to the public TV documentary I mentioned in the first part, and I taped as I watched it, figuring I would enjoy it enough to rewatch — which I did, quite extensively, leading me to get the DVD as soon as I had my first player. Having not seen it in a while, though, allowed me to see through fresher eyes that have perhaps been spoiled by so many near-perfect Criterion transfers or restorations. The print Universal has, though not unwatchable by any means, could do with a scrub-up of the visual static, while a more detailed deluxe presentation would be a dream — on the making of the movie, its reception, more about how who came to be cast and why, the reasons why it was made and turned out to be so successful, analyses in general, etc. etc. I’d happily pay again for that if it reflected all the due possible care that could into such a project.

And of course, it’s because the film really is so very, very good. Not perfect, I’d say, no, but to my mind admittedly untrained mind it comes across as an example of how the transition to sound was so rewarding and so readily grasped. That may seem like a strange reason to praise a film in particular but to my mind All Quiet on the Western Front is a film of experimentation, of trying to work with the bounds and possibilities of recorded sound for film images in many different ways. It’s as if the rules, whatever they were, weren’t quite established yet, not like they had been visually for two decades beforehand in a slow accretion of shorthand and conventions. And so the movie takes advantage of its setting — a chaotic war and its interludes — to range from near-silence to some of the most staggering, impact-filled explosions one can hear.

I’m quite serious about that last point. In an era of home digital stereo montrosities giving you wall-to-wall everything, it’s important to realize just how…visceral, I suppose the word is, that the bombardments and attacks throughout the film can be. They’re often incredibly monstrous, certainly complemented by appropriate visuals as needed, but quite often the dominant feature during a sequence. Consider the massive barrage unleashed while the patrol is out on wirework in the early part of the film, or the whistling shell screams and explosions that herald an attack while the camera tracks slowly up a trench full of soldiers waiting, just waiting, for whatever will happen next. Even the muffled bombings heard in the trench dugouts have their own grinding horror, and it’s no surprise that one of the most effective scenes is when the young recruits are coming to grips with the ceaseless pounding, but not entirely succeeding.

Also noteworthy is the near absence of what would seem essential in later years — a score. There’s an opening fanfare with the credits, yes, but from that point on all music is strictly source music, singalongs in pubs and chanting while on drill and the like, but otherwise no music at all, no “Paul’s Theme” or a melody for Kat. I don’t miss it at all — perhaps if there was one I would think differently and couldn’t imagine the film without it, but this breaking of a rule not yet codified turns out to be massively important, perhaps a fluke or perhaps a technical necessity, but for whatever reason quite memorable, strikingly so.

And then the story, and the rough humor and the desperation and the moments of camaraderie amidst the chaos, the slow and the fast times and the eternal grinding down and wearing away until all that is left is Paul, and then he too is gone, following the novel to its bitter end. The bitterest of endings in real wars must always be those who die last, when an end is in sight, when there is not much left to go, either because that’s obvious or because shortly thereafter there is no more war to fight. There’s a story I read years ago about the last American soldier to die in Vietnam that has always stuck with me, and here similarly Paul’s fate is the fictional equivalent of the worst waste of all. It’s structured in a straight beginning to end fashion, unlike the book as I noted earlier, but does not suffer for it, and for an adaptation it keeps most of the characters and many of the incidents. There are changes — Himmelstoss, the sadistic trainer of recruits, in the book eventually goes to fight as well and Paul and he come to be, if not friends, then at least comrades who were both different people years before. In the movie, he gets his ‘just desserts’ in perhaps a particularly American sense, proving to be a coward on the front line, berated and almost killed by Paul in angry frustration, and then shortly thereafter killed in a sudden burst of redemption by charging into the thick of battle, though the movie at least captures again the feeling of it being little more than another loss.

Lew Ayres as Paul is one of those inspired moments of casting where someone who is a beautiful enough young man, and who maybe hasn’t quite got full control of his acting abilities yet, turns out to be the right guy at the right time. There’s a scene where he impulsively prays to God to save a dying friend, and does so with a slow, wounded grace that’s at once shamelessly sentimental and, well, truly heartbreaking — a reminder that the characters are no more than desperate children, clinging yet to hope early on, then to each other and what humanity they can cling to later. Lewis Wolheim as Kat perhaps single-handed invented the cliche of the ugly, rough and hardbitten sarge or NCO with a heart of gold — it’s top notch casting and his gravelly but warm voice is exactly what’s needed.

But it’s Slim Summerville as Tjaden who is perhaps the real revelation — he made his reputation as a Keystone Kop, starred in many sound-era comedies as a character actor with Zasu Pitts and so forth. He definitely shows comedic gifts well — he’s a master at pulling long faces and delivering downbeat lines — but his humor isn’t out of place at all, it’s the humor, partly gallows and partly simply wry, of trying to hold on in the midst of a muddy hell. He too is a sympathetic figure par excellence but is not one to be cheery just for the sake of it, his humor and delivery aim to blunt the blow, ease the sting, release tension or concern somehow — a telling point early on is when he delivers a wry, dismissive line to Paul in response to his earnest question about food. Tjaden’s older comrades laugh bitterly, Paul takes offense, but then Tjaden swiftly explains himself, without apologizing or being mealy-mouthed but still immediately demonstrating sympathy and empathy, enough to assuage Paul’s feelings and give us a good peek into both their characters. It’s a lovely moment of acting, but perhaps the best of Summerville’s many moments comes near the end, when he walks into a shelled house where the remainder of his company is huddled, and initially does nothing but pause at the doorway, visibly sagging and slumping as he comes in. It’s a non-verbal portrait of sheer hopelessness, and confirms quite simply that Summerville was not just a comedian but an actor, a fine one.

Stepping back a touch, perhaps the lack of music in the movie is what then led me to think of something else…

(Part three will continue on New York London Paris Munich)

27
Sep 04

For those of you interested in the origins

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For those of you interested in the origins on of the “movie based on a computer game” we can go back a lot further than Streetfighter, Mortal Kombat and Super Mario Brothers. I give you David Cronenbergs lost masterpiece: Repton: The Movie.

There were lots of angry and concerned punters in the studio debate after last nights

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There were lots of angry and concerned punters in the studio debate after last night’s Dirty War. Some complained about the stereotyping of the Muslims in it. Others worried about the suggestion that the fire brigade did not have enough equipment to sort us out in the event of such a bomb. One mother wondered exactly what she would do if a dirty bomb went off in her children’s school in Andover*. But no-one asked the question that should have been asked of the esteemed panel and Fiona Bruce.

Why was the show so rubbish? I tuned in waiting for some Threads-like apocalyptic action. What I got was sub-adequacy disaster film. It spent over half its time developing (HAH!) its characters and then, in complete disregard for genre rules, did not kill any of them. This collaboration between BBC Drama and BBC Current Affairs was so specific abut its threat that it was not all that worrying at all, but was so cliched in its drama that you did not care anyway. Not only was the bomb and its supposedly deadly aftermath fluffed, it seemed so upbeat that beyond coughing and losing a bit of hair, a dirty bomb is just another afternoon in the city.

Clearly the BBC were keen on this being an event. The discussion afterwards certainly tried to push that line. Instead though what they produced was a half arsed version of the first five episodes of 24 season two. Why exactly were we shown the terrorists. Perhaps the idea was to show how easy a dirty bomb was to make? Well it did not work, and gave the whole thing a thriller air at odds with what it was supposed to be doing, showing us what would happen if a dirty bomb went off. We got chaos in the control room, a befuddled minister (who would not have been left as she was anyway) and a few people staggering around not sure if this was a zombie movie or not. The programme finished with a bizarre jump in time, showing us London a month later and NOTHING HAD CHANGED. Not so much of a Dirty War as a Rubbish War.

*Mourn being the correct if unlikely answer.

FT TOP 100 FILMS 24: BODY SNATCHERS (Abel Ferrara Version)

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FT TOP 100 FILMS
24: BODY SNATCHERS (Abel Ferrara Version)

Its a clever commentary on McCarthyism you know.
Oh, its also a critique on the evils of communism.

The problem with The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is that it has been held up as a poster boy for B-movie film theory greatness for, well forever (quite possibly before it was made). The idea that B-movies made it possible for those critiques to be made behind closed doors, because no-one really cared about B-movies. All well and good, but Invasion, like a lot of these sci-fi cheapies, can easily be read in any number of ways, usually contradictory. While you are using the film to back-up your current political bugbear, youa re missing the real reason it has lasted fifty years. Its a bloody good story.

It is not something that Abel Ferrara missed, in this the second remake of the film. Certainly a needless remake, the late seventies version certainly essayed the simple dumb remake furrow and ended up looking like The Stepford Wives. The seventies version is these days touted as a classic satire on capitalism, but then every film in the seventies was. Ferrara takes the tale back to the small town, adds an army base and then gets his hands dirty with the effects.

The problem with the previous two versions of this plant based chiller always had a slight problem with the “snatching” angle. It was rather invasion of the body replacers. Ferrar not only rectifies this, suggesting the idea of virtual eviction from your own body, but also plays up the paranoia aspect. Perhaps having his protagonists as outsiders was a mistake, and there is not a lot in the way of suspense, but for sticky, gooey, body snatching fun, this version requires you to stop inventing allegories (the army alienation one is so full centre it requires no thought) and enjoy the ride. Sometimes a squiggling body snatching aliang is really just a squiggly body snatching aliang.

Lumbering propaganda piece

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Lumbering propaganda piece Hero is of high interest if you like colour-coded interior design or CGI madness involving arrows. Otherwise it’s gorgeous cobblers, a waste of five or six great pop videos. The portentious narrative style may be an acquired taste, but to me – no veteran of martial arts films – it seemed awfully laboured. The fighting itself? Pretty good, as you’d expect, but the slo-mo direction seemed an odd choice given that the fighting – and the plot – hinges on who’s fastest (cue lots of expository dialogue, “How swift your sword is”). And for almost every fight the film had helpfully told us who wins in advance, which reduced the tension ever so slightly. Ravishing costumes, lovely cinematography and several unintentionally hilarious moments provide some relief in a grindingly slow film. Not recommended.

26
Sep 04

THE RULES OF THE GAME

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THE RULES OF THE GAME
Dir. Jean Renoir

A few months back I had the chance to pick up La Grande Illusion, a film by a filmmaker I had heard much about but never seen outside of a still or two. A lucky used find — then again I’m always happy when I come across Criteirion films used — and a film well worthy of the attention heaped on it, as I talked about briefly here. So having heard about The Rules of the Game I trusted I would somehow find a copy somewhere along the line…and once again stumbled across a used Criteirion copy. I salute the factor of luck.

And so the film, and once again I think the praise is quite well justified. Goodness, it’s poetry in motion at many points, it just simply flows without pause at many times. Without having known his other thirties work aside from La Grande Illusion, it’s hard for me to say how much of a new or striking development this is in his efforts, but given the readily familiar farcical trappings of the plot and house — Plautus could have viewed this and gone, “Oh yeah, right, nice twist on the form there, I approve, now is the new Greek wine in?” — keeping the camera moving just so, his actors engaged in a perfect ballet across the majesterial main rooms, the editing not allowing for a breath at points, all denotes an ability to push the medium until it works just so. Busby Berkeley choreography shot at eye level.

How intentional, I wonder, is the fact that it’s so easy to be seduced by the sheer play at play in the setting and among the characters, though? It’s interesting in that it’s a film consciously created by Renoir to be a sharp critique of a mindset and a class (but notably not sparing those on the other side of the upstairs/downstairs divide, where there is venality, bigotry and more in equal abundance as much as there is sudden humor and joy — not to mention shrugging resignation, but often conveyed in quick looks rather than explanations, a handy economy). And yet for all the Decameron-like nature of the houseguests and their hosts, escaping from a threat never discussed on screen and of course not truly and fully capable of being imagined by anyone quite yet, it’s so easy not to pity them or sympathize with them necessarily but to let them get on with it for a watcher’s amusement. By all means let them drink too much or talk about honor and duels and get involved in fights and spy on each other and delivered open or veiled emotional threats or twist the meaning of words from one set of conventions to another as the situation demands it. If Marquis de la Chesnaye loves the mechanical creations he buys and sets to playing, I love the one I’ve purchased here, their movements always preset.

And thus the tragedy concluding the film is actually less tragic than all that — which may be cold but it also reflects a weakness in the film, namely that the character of Jurieux is a cipher, actually probably the least complicated of the main characters. Renoir’s point that he does not play by ‘the rules’ is clear, perhaps, but even more so than the various objects or foci of desire in a Hitchcock plot, Jurieux is ultimately a Macguffin, talked about and analyzed and debated but rarely ever speaking for himself outside of cliches of love and honor. In respects it’s what the character demands, and he’s actually played very well by Roland Toutain, in that I don’t think the character has much thought of anything else in his head beyond these points. I’m not sure whether Renoir means for him to be sympathetic or not, in the end — he is the fly in the ointment, to be sure, and he is expected by everyone else to follow one set role or another, and on that level one wants to connect with him, for who wants to be so boxed in? And yet in turn he seems an automaton bereft of reflection, at least on first blush — there’s no there there, and if other characters want to wind him up and watch him move to a preset tune, he seems just as capable of doing that to himself.

In comparison most everyone else of the major characters is a partially or fully collapsing mess, either fighting to hold it in or just finally letting it go after everything builds up. Human, all too human, and while they can be condemned for their wastrel behavior and their frittering away of time and treasure, or else seen as supporting that through their choice of actions, damned if I can’t immediately find moments of identification throughout. Whether it’s obsession with hobbies, unsureness of what another person really wants, unsureness of what oneself wants, pathetic drunken self-laceration, endless worrying and doubts…the list goes on. In an era then as now where political follies and economic concerns and more almost constantly require thinking more outside oneself, the sheer comfort to be found in withdrawal and self-regard is frankly quite frighteningly understandable. Solipsism and reducing everything down to what’s going on with your own life and those you interact with isn’t dangerous because it cuts out the world, it’s dangerous because it’s so very, very cozy — and how many characters in the film ponder escape or breaking free or somehow going away and how many of them do not? I suspect they are all content to scratch a particular itch, and that it is better the devil they know.

Perhaps Renoir’s own moment of comfortable discomfort comes with the shooting scene halfway through. I instantly suspected that he must have absolutely despised blood sports, something confirmed in the essay booklet that came with the disc. And yet, of course, we see vast numbers of rabbits and pheasants killed quite openly and graphically on camera, those were hardly stunt animals watched over by the ASPCA (or its French equivalent, more accurately). It’s not clear whether Renoir directed that sequence himself, I suspect he got someone else to do it, but he had to balance off his own scruples and morals with a belief that it was important to show. Decades on and it’s perhaps telling that I feel so uneasy about what is essentially a non-human snuff film sequence (even more telling that after all I am no vegetarian and can hardly claim to be truly morally offended through and through). Perhaps this was the kind of thing Renoir felt about how his initial audience reacted so poorly to the film, that they didn’t want to confront something or some things in the film, but presumably he had to do the same. An interesting depiction of a moral choice from outside the film’s self-contained universe, at the least, and part of the reason why I think this film will readily bear rewatching.

25
Sep 04

Eight Great Minutes of TV

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Eight Great Minutes of TV

I put the telly on at around 10 am, Dick and Dom are caked in gunge already. A Kate Bush impersonator is singing “Wuthering Heights”, two men in white coats come and take her away. Then it’s time for “Bungalow Battle Bots”, a game of pure genius, with it’s heavy metal songs which seem to be made up on the spot. Two teams of kids are let lose on two guys in black – paint, duct tape, silly wigs, tubes etc, are added to them to turn them into fearsome battle robots – who fight!

Dick and Dom have achieved a visceral level of mentalism, it’s as though they’ve cast aside any hope of a serious TV career – I remember when Dom was just a TV magician and Dick was a run-of-the-mill kids TV host. Some kind of transformation has taken place, which to my shame I didn’t get at first, resulting in my criticism of “Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow” around a year ago. They truly are a real life Terence and Phillip, and for that I salute them.

24
Sep 04

FT TOP 100 FILMS 25: A Matter Of Life And Death

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FT TOP 100 FILMS
25: A Matter Of Life And Death

Martin Skidmore says: This has a great setup and it expands on it with imagination and extraordinary flair. It starts with a wonderful conversation between sexy aircraft coordinator Kim Hunter and doomed pilot David Niven. He’s about to crash and die – but the ‘angel’ (more or less) deputed to grab his soul wasn’t doing his job, and he miraculously survives – and wakes on the beach, very near the woman he had talked to. The angel is sent to get him, but he refuses. The woman is friends with a brilliant psychiatrist, played by the mighty Roger Livesey.

It’s a beautiful start, and the film from there on is packed with bravura scenes: the giant camera obscura, the frozen table tennis game, and most especially his trial in Heaven, played out in black and white (the real world is in colour) with countless spectators. It’s a magnificent set-piece, with hugely entertaining legal arguments, mostly defending Brits against Yanks, an extraordinary conceit at the end of WWII. It’s a film of boundless confidence, in its satirical script, its deft performance and sometimes outrageous direction from Michael Powell, funny and visually stunning. There are few films I love more.

Tom says: You can see this, if you like, as an ‘answer film’ to It’s A Wonderful Life. Of course I don’t know which was made first – but not only does AMOLAD flip the concept of IAWL (here the angel is sent to claim a soul, not save it), it also shows that you can be whimsical without being twee, or sentimental. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, a film that takes its supernatural trappings entirely seriously but never uses them as an excuse for homilies or mystical waffle. In fact in the hands of actors less capable than Niven and Livesey it might be a rather dry film – but the perfect casting sidesteps that possibility. Niven in particular is superb: he may have been a caricature actor, forever locked into the role of the Decent Chap, but when that role was this richly written there was nobody better.